By Leslie Crawford, Senior Editor
Every year in January, a few of us at GreatSchools board a plane and fly to Milwaukee. A boondoggle it’s ain’t. Wisconsin can rightly boast no end of charms (cheese, the Packers, breathtaking lakes and national forests, cheese), but jetting there in winter probably isn't on anyone's list of luxury business trips. The day before we left, my San Francisco office mates were sending dire emails – and some ribbing – about the sub-zero temperatures and snowstorm forecasted to arrive just as we did. “Hold onto your nose!” someone wrote before I left.
So why do we pack ourselves into our parkas for such a frigid school field trip? Because that’s when GreatSchools’ co-sponsor’s Milwaukee’s annual school fair, held at the height of the city’s school shopping season. For several years, GreatSchools’ has had a satellite office in Milwaukee (as we do in Washington D.C.), which happens to has one of the most challenging and complicated school systems in the country, a crazy quilt composed of hundreds of public charters, independent charters, virtual charters, public schools, and private schools. If you learn how to use the laudatory Milwaukee Parental Choice Program voucher system to your advantage, you can keep your children out of a failing school and find them a spot in a great one. At the school fair, we talk to parent after worried but devoted parent about how to navigate this labyrinth to get to the pot of gold.
And that’s why we go to the Milwaukee school fair (and others throughout the year), as well as tour several of the city's schools. True to our name, we are there to support parents in their mission to make sure their child gets a great education. They need the support. Like so many parents in America today, they find their kids growing up in a different world than they grew up in. You no longer send your children to your local public school and call it a day. Why? Because the school your child was assigned might be about to be shut down, or be failing your child with subpar classes, or be dangerous. As a parent today, you need to moonlight as an educational advocate for your child. No easy task. Particularly if you’re a working parent with one or two or three jobs, who is also struggling to ensure your kids are clothed and fed. Trying to make sure they get a quality education? Not a given.
But just when you begin to despair that the educational system is broken – that millions of kids are being sacrificed at the altar of a struggling economy, slashed budgets and adult infighting – then you meet parents who show up at the fair because they're fiercely determined to make sure their child doesn’t slip through the cracks. This determination makes all the difference.
You offer them your best advice. Even as an editor at GreatSchools, I have to remind myself to follow in my ongoing struggle to find great schools for my six and 14 year old kids:
1) Figure out what you want. This isn’t always easy to be clear about what you really want for your child. So make a list of what’s important to you – for your child and family. (e.g. Do I need a school that is close and ok or are you willing to make the drive for a better school? Would my child thrive in small or big classes? Do I want religious or non-denominational school? Uniforms or no uniforms?)
2) Let GreatSchools help. Go to our website and after studying test scores and reading parent reviews of top schools in your district, narrow your search to about three to four schools.
3) Go to the school. This might be the hardest feat to pull off if you’re a overtaxed, working parent. But all the test scores and parent reviews in the world won’t tell you if this school is a fit for your child (one size does not fit all – even for children in the same family) until you step foot inside. What do you see when you get there? Is the staff warm and open to you visiting? Are there signs of learning, maybe art, on the walls? Do the students look happy and engaged? Would you want to spend your days there? (Here's a list of questions to ask and what to look for when visiting.)
Until I landed in Milwaukee, I hadn’t realized this trip is a boondoggle – getting the chance to meet thousands of dedicated teachers, principals, parents, and kids. Sure I never sipped margaritas on a golden-sanded beach. But I don’t tan. Besides, it’s not really that cold in Milwaukee. In fact, there was no lack of warmth at the school fair – at least if you’re talking about the people.